By Darren Franich
August 27, 2018 at 11:18 AM EDT

Sharp Objects (TV series)

  • TV Show
  • HBO

The miniseries trended hot through this decade, radiating chic nihilism and Serious Drama-hood, murder, and melancholy. Like, when you hear the phrase “Limited Series Event,” you don’t immediately think “lighthearted.”

But there’s an off-putting cuteness toward the end of some of the most acclaimed short-run dramas, a sudden-onset finale instinct to wrap everything up on a good note. The first True Detective pondered the void for eight episodes, then decided that light was winning. Every Fargo bends to the warming glow (and moral authority) of an all-American cop-parent family. Half the American Horror Stories end with the whole cast dead, but they’re usually happy ghosts haunting primo real estate for eternity. After a season of cockeyed skepticism about the American legal system, The Night Of‘s last act was hopeful, its last shot a cute cat.

Big Little Lies was never as dour as its short-form brethren. It had sense of humor about characters’ excess, an expansive feeling for their humanity. Director Jean-Marc Vallée fluidly tripped between rhythms, assault trauma psychology into alpha mom battlegrounding, marital corrosion alongside kindergarten noir. But that great HBO mini landed on a vision of utopia: Feuding privilege queens reborn as a misogyny-busting sisterhood, coastal-Cali Earth Mothers raising a savior generation of beach kids. (A second season, previously unplanned, may complicate that conclusion. The boldest approach would be eight episodes where everyone’s chill.)

Sharp Objects went a different direction. The series was directed by Vallée, created by Marti Noxon, executive produced Gillian Flynn, and adapted from Flynn’s own novel. The eighth and final episode marked their complete collaboration, Vallée directing a script written by Flynn and Noxon. And the end of the matriarchal murder mystery was nasty, brutish, and short.

The final scene closed on a depraved laughline, a bit of grotesque body horror baroque enough to qualify for the front window of a vintage shop. “Don’t tell Mama,” said Amma (Eliza Scanlen). Her Southern twang emphasized the climactic repeated syllable, like one great maw wasn’t enough to hold all this inner darkness.

We barely even got to see how Camille (Amy Adams) reacted to her half-sister’s demented crime. The penultimate shot was final close-up on Adams, looking confused/disappointed/horrified, unable to speak. Then again, what can you say about a dollhouse with floor tiles made from human teeth? Unthinkably horrible! Such creativity!

The eighth and final episode of Sharp Objects had been, up to that point, an exercise in simmering tension. Camille returned home to find mom Adora (Patricia Clarkson) initiating the Filicide Protocol, force-feeding Amma the same eye-of-newt concoction that killed Camille’s sister Marian (Lulu Wilson). The women sat at the table, joined by audio enthusiast Alan (Henry Czerny). The vibe was “Texas Chainsaw Massacre dinner party,” with Amma positively sweating poison, a floral crown giving her the shimmer of a sea nymph lost in a Boschian hellscape.

Camille conceived a desperate gambit. She fell to the floor, begging Adora to care for her. This was everything her mother ever wanted from her eldest daughter: To be needed, and worshipped. Camille’s act was complex, victimhood as a heroic act of rescue, a kind of martyrdom.

This was a showcase for everyone involved. Camille was wound up tight all season, except those rare happy moments when she successfully drowned herself in booze (or floated away on ecstasy rollerskates). And now Adams guided you through Camille’s dissolution. There was a freaky physicality in her near-death experience — one thinks of Michelle Pfeiffer in the What Lies Beneath bathtub, the mere act of breathing suddenly a triumph of the human spirit. But in some ways, Camille had never been stronger. The cards were all on the table. And the ghostly little sister offered her a vision of grace.

Clarkson’s been a delicious over-the-top presence at times this season, turning Adora into a delicate rose made of thorns. Her actions here were monstrous, but her performance got more delicate in the extremity. Meanwhile, Amma haunted the margins. Scanlen was always the Sharp Objects wild card. She was the high-status member of the Preaker-Crellin household: the powerful swagger of popular-girl precociousness, and the willing childish recipient of parental attention. Now she was halfway to being another ghost sister. Her apparent confidence emptied away; the first great shock of this finale was that Amma never called the cops.

The payoff was a bit clumsy, I think. Sweet Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval) showed up with the cops, a paternal presence to rescue Camille from motherly madness. Sandoval’s a great actor, but Frank represented the aspects of Sharp Objects I liked the least. His phone calls with Camille were the same scene repeated over and over: Hey kid, how ya doing, yep keep filing those stories, I have a cool wife! That feeling of repetition extended through a lot of the middle the limited series’ run, weekly swingby at the bar, weekly Elizabeth Perkins truthbomb, the Chief sure loves his fan, skate on you skatergirls!

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Flynn, a former TV critic for EW, described Sharp Objects as “a character study hidden inside of a mystery,” and the murder puzzle aspect of the plot felt purposefully de-emphasized. For the town at large, there were only ever two obvious suspects. But that made Sharp Objects feel fuzzy, a tone poem of stylized sadness, with a lot of delayed action on the road toward an inevitable-feeling payoff. Noir maestro Raymond Chandler had that funny line about mystery plotting: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” On Sharp Objects, when in doubt, Camille selected a new song on her iPod. And that iPod was the single most annoying character tic in any good show this year, a burst of mixtaping indie quirk. It felt more directorial than characteristic, an advertisement for HBO’s music budget.

The point was to draw you into Camille’s perspective; even her iPod was scarred all over. Camille was a fascinating character, so strong that her internal struggle felt like a heavyweight title match. Adams’ great performance expressed years of horror and psychological trauma. The perpetual flashbackery served to underline and italicize, but I’m not sure it deepened. The occasional appearance of half-hallucinated hidden words was another annoying directorial choice; I kept waiting for Camille to look up and see the word “THEMES!” written in the clouds.

Being cruel to be kind here, because the brutally hilarious ending of episode 8 left you feeling like all the melancholy was a purposeful pose, a setup for a sweet catharsis-via-sisterhood gone very very rotten. The cops arrived, arresting Adora, saving her daughters. Detective Willis (Chris Messina) stuck around just long enough to say goodbye. Messina rocked a memorably awkward Not Ready For This blank stare as he left Camille. (Coward!)

Camille adopted Amma, bringing her away from the historical horrors of Wind Gap. Adora went to prison, visited occasionally by the one daughter who still loved her. Together they basked in the warming glow of Frank and Eileen (Barbara Eve Harris). Shout-out to Harris, by the way, for exuding unfussy strength in her few scenes. Run back the tape and you realize that Eileen’s the one character on Sharp Objects who ever seems genuinely concerned about Camille, with no personal or professional ulterior motive.

The jaws of victory, but defeat loomed. Amma made a new friend, seemed to be in a little feud; you know how teens are. Then Camille looked closer at that little dollhouse — at the second floor, in fact, with its ivory tiles. (Earlier in the episode, Camille was lying near death on those tiles.) At long last physical evidence: The teeth of Ann Nash and Natalie Keene, recycled into redecoration.

“Don’t tell Mama,” said Amma. What a line! Scanlen gave it just the right lilt: Apologetic, little girl lost, but you could feel Amma playing Camille, too, the way she played all of us. She absorbed a key lesson from Adora: Pretend toward weakness to hide your strength, play the victim when you’re some kind of monster. The best part of Sharp Objects was how the central unholy trinity of Preaker-Crellin kept on shifting, a dynamic built from unstable molecules. Adora and Camille competed for maternal sway over teenaged Amma. (Camille said she wouldn’t know how to take care of a baby. Amma: “You can practice on me.”)

Flashbacks rib-poked us to consider that Amma was taking the place of Adora’s lost daughter and Camille’s lost sister. But her relationship to Camille was complicated, and at times you had the feeling that Amma was the authoritative sibling, handing out happy pills, guiding Camille no place good. The scrambling of ages felt vague but purposeful: Adams and Clarkson are near-contemporaries, whereas 19-year-old Scanlen seemed aged downwards with performance and clever costuming.

The fact that Amma anagrams into “Mama” gives this ending a final gut punch. Camille thought she was rescuing her sister — and, in doing so, rescuing herself. But her sister’s crimes mark a threefold multiplication of Adora’s fatality rate.

One daughter killed, one daughter a killer: Where does that leave Camille? Flynn’s book has a longer conclusion: a bit of explanation from the murderess about Why She Done It, the promise of a new family for Camille in the arms of the Curry clan. It’s an ending not dissimilar from the miniseries I mentioned at the top — dark, sure, but with the promise of new hope. The last word in the novel is “kindness.”

I’m glad the Sharp Objects collaborators amputated all of that. You’re left to ponder what happens next. Does the fearful American Gothic cycle of pain continue, Camille mercy-killing her mad half-sister? Does she do nothing, recognizing in Amma’s actions an outward-facing symptom of the same emotional brutality that led Camille to transform her emotional turmoil into self-infliction?

Sharp Objects wrestled with heavy topics, comprising an assault narrative, a portrait of lifelong self-harm, a meditation on American myths of female victimization. It is the kind of show that requires an end-credits referral to the suicide hotline. And I worry that sometimes the weight of all this obscured the show’s real strength: This was a sick show. Our reporter had no obvious journalistic ethics. A search for a dead body was an excuse for daydrinking. Heck, the death of teen girls was some kind of Wind Gap parlor game, a gritty reboot of a beloved local franchise that started back at the town’s beginning, with Millie Calhoun, her pedophile husband, the monomythic assault by Union Soldiers in the forest.

Amma, of course, played Millie in the Calhoun Day sketch. In rehearsal, she playfully tried to reframe the history as a proto-feminist feat of empowerment, “the world’s first all-female militia!” At the time, you wondered if the point was to highlight Amma as a disruptive new force in the world, maybe even the dawn of a new age.

Now that “all-female militia” line sounds like Sharp Objects‘ nastiest joke. As the end credits rolled, we saw brief glimpses of Amma’s crimes — and caught sight of her rollerskating pals, humbly assisting. “They’d do anything for me,” she told Camille back in episode 3. A sobering kind of progress, this: Wind Gap’s first all-female militia could kill girls just as well as any male army. (“I’d rather he kill her than rape her” one of the victim’s parents told Camille. He got the killer’s pronoun wrong, but that’s still the only wish that came true on Sharp Objects.)

The blurring images of Amma’s crimes were freaky. Still, there was something a bit dopey in the decision to bury them in the end-credits. I wonder if it’s an expression of a collaborative disagreement, some combination of Vallée and Noxon and Flynn not quite trusting the audience or the shock power of the Band-Aid-rip ending. It blunts the power of the cut to black. But the montage of murder has its own power. We catch sight of Amma killing her poor new friend, and the look on Scanlen’s face is just marvelous: Ecstatic with rage and victory, the look Mads Mikkelsen owned through three seasons of Hannibal.

At the very end of the credits — in the Thanos slot — there was the briefest possible shot of Amma, dressed in white, disappearing into the forest. It’s a final bit of dark humor in a finale that throws all Sharp Objects‘ apparent sincerity to the wind. In this demented fairy tale, the angelic innocent is the consuming swamp monster.

I didn’t always love Sharp Objects, will always wonder if it would’ve been twice as good half as long. But the final moments ascended to greatness by, paradoxically, descending toward B-movie cheap thrills: A cadaverous DIY art project, a redemption exploded, that climactic “Don’t tell Mama!” suggesting the crowd-pleasing catchphrase in a family sitcom broadcast straight from Hell.

You’re left with one twisted epiphany: Camille’s only notable action, her great heroic victory, was saving a murderer so she could kill again. B+

Sharp Objects (TV series)

  • TV Show
  • 1
  • Marti Noxon
  • HBO